To this year’s graduating class…
There are lessons to be learned
from an NFL mini-camp.
From trips to Dunkin’ Donuts.
And from the cinema classic “Airplane!”
Members of the sports industry were among the
commencement speakers on college and university
campuses this spring. Here are excerpts of their words
of wisdom to this year’s graduates —
drawing from their unique, personal stories.
— Compiled by Stephanie Brown
Jacksonville Jaguars owner
University of Illinois
|Photo: UI NEWS BUREAU / L. BRIAN STAUFFER
“So to achieve the American dream, it’s all on you to make it happen. For football fans, last week I was at the Jaguars rookie mini-camp, and you know this is where college players are trying to make an NFL team. Fewer than one out of 200 college football players make it to the pros. The odds are greatly stacked against you. I asked one of the players, ‘Why do you do this?’ And he said, ‘I might make the team, and if I don’t, I know I gave it my all, and then I’ll be able to live with myself.’ It really resonated with me because it kind of makes me think, ‘Am I giving it my all so I’m able to live with myself?’ This young man was pursuing his version of the American dream. Yours is different. I’m grateful to be living it, and I’m here as evidence that it is possible.”
NFL vice president and chief security officer
|Photo: THOM SWARR
“In considering what I wanted to say to you today, I couldn’t help but reflect upon a thought I had during one of my first meetings with [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell in his office: How did I get here? I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood outside of Harrisburg [Pa.] and was fortunate to have two very supportive parents who taught me at a very early age that I could do whatever I set my mind to and that I should always aim high. I took that lesson to heart and set my mind to becoming a state trooper. I knew in junior high school that this is what I was going to do. I even took Latin because I knew it was the root of the law and [I] wanted to prepare myself in every way possible. I’m a big believer in the premise that somebody else might be smarter or more gifted in some other way, but the one thing you can always do is out-prepare them. If you are willing to work harder, you can overcome any gap that may exist.”
ESPN NFL reporter
“We live in this world where just about everybody is looking for something on their smartphone, on their iPad, their laptop — constantly searching all the time on BuzzFeed, Facebook and Twitter. In this country alone, there’s about 320 million consumers of information and entertainment, always looking for content; unique content — something, anything different. And they’re looking all the time. So what does that mean? That means in the course of human history, there has never been a greater time to be a content provider.
“The whole world is looking down all the time, looking for content. You do it; I do it. You’ve got to look up. Look up and provide it. That means you’ve got to put [your phone] down once in awhile and look up at the world. Observe what’s going on. Talk to people.
“Find out what they love, what they fear, what they want – and then give it to them. Write it, draw it, sing it, preach it, design it, build it, play it, rock it, mock it — but make sure you go out and find it. …
“If you’re reading it on your iPhone, you’ve already lost. Somebody else is already providing content; you’re just another consumer. Remember: Hundreds of millions of people consume ESPN every day; there’s only about a hundred of us on ESPN. So do that math. ... Be a provider.”
Janet Marie Smith
Los Angeles Dodgers senior vice president, planning and development
Mississippi State University
|Photo: MEGAN BEAN
“Before I tell you about the job I love and why it is important to do something you love, let me tell you I did not wind up in this position by spontaneous combustion or intelligent design. I worked hard, I tried harder. I had some good luck and I had some bad luck. The bad luck turned out OK, but it is difficult to accept setbacks and challenges [as] clouds with silver linings when you are in the midst of a storm. We are always told these downturns build character. I don’t know about that, but I can tell you they certainly inspired me to claw my way out of whatever pickle I was in and create a better situation for myself.
“My first jobs were not heady positions or even underling jobs in a sexy place. I worked as a switchboard operator for the night shift here at MSU. This was, of course, before cell phones. I worked as a secretary for an attorney before being called a secretary was politically incorrect. I spent a summer at the Sun-n-Sand in Jackson [Miss.], typing and retyping the same letter inviting companies to host their convention at the hotel. This was back in the days before computers, word processors or even white out. I am not telling you these things to make myself look aspiring or old or stupid, but to tell you that my jobs were not glamorous. But I earned money, built a résumé, and won the confidence of professionals who would attest to my work ethic when I needed a job reference. … And I learned what I did not want to do with the rest of my life.”
Basketball hall of famer
New England Institute of Technology
|Photo: NEW ENGLAND INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
“When I ‘graduated’ from the NBA, I faced the same question of what I would [do] next — not just from friends and family, like most of you, but from hundreds of reporters, which added a lot of pressure to whatever my answer would be. I know what you’re all thinking: With my witty charm, great body and pivotal role in the film “Airplane!,” I could have become governor. I’m still thinking that one over.
“Like most of you, I had a lot of choices about what to do next, but I kept coming back to the question itself; what it really meant: ‘What are you going to do next?’ On one level, it’s a very simple question: How will you be filling your time? What is your next step on your ladder to success? But on another level, the question is more philosophical: What will you do to be worthy of success? ... I wanted my actions to positively affect my entire community, not just the sports community. Whenever I reached my next ‘graduation,’ I wanted to look back and know that I’d improved other people’s lives, not just my own.
“So I did what no one expected. I wrote history books. … I also coached a high school basketball team on an Apache reservation. I tried to pass along some of the basketball skills — and some of the off-court lessons — I’d learned.”
Suffolk University, Sawyer Business School
|Photo: SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY
“I grew up with a father that had all kinds of issues, but the one thing he passed on to me was that my word was my bond, and that integrity would carry me farther than any other knowledge I could have. So when I started Reebok, I started a company with integrity. And I don’t mean just honesty. I mean actually focused on a purpose, dedicated to my mission and relentless in the pursuit of doing it the right way; not giving in to the temptations that lied ahead that we all encounter. And I want to tell you, keeping your integrity is a very, very hard thing to do. … When you have a culture that’s built on integrity, and that’s the core of what you do, I promise you, it is the most powerful medicine. It’s the most powerful excitement you’ll ever live with in your life.”
Boston Globe columnist / ESPN contributor
Southern New Hampshire University
“I grew up hearing that ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ Guess what? It’s very often the gospel truth. You’ll never hear me rail about privilege. I had three different summer jobs because different people had told my mother that ‘When Bobby is old enough, give me a call,’ and she did, and they came through. My father died when I was 11. My mother was a secretary. And we’re supposed to apologize because some old family friend had given me a job? Get real.
“For decades now we’ve been hearing about that great ideal, the so-called ‘level playing field.’ What a great abstract theory. What a crock of, um, horse manure. Real life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes there’s legitimate competition, sometimes there isn’t. All you can do is put yourself in a position such that if you get a break, if you get the phone call I got, if you get an interview for a job because someone else ahead of you in the pecking order decides not to take it — and this is how I fell into my summer internship at the Boston Globe 45 years ago — you are as ready and prepared as you should be.”
ESPN executive chairman
Penn State University
|Photo: STEVE MANUEL / PENN STATE
“When I started at ESPN, it was a fledgling company, and I was single. Work nights? No problem. Weekends? Can do. Travel? Let’s go. As I moved up in the organization, the demands on my time only increased. And of course, I was fortunate along the way to get married and have three children. Talk about juggling all the things you have to juggle.
“Working at ESPN is truly a full-time job. However, ESPN is not unique. You’ll find that true regardless of the field you go [into]. [It’s] true in most, if not all, jobs: tremendous demands on your time, juggling work with T-ball, music recitals, school functions, even getting home on time for dinner so you can share a meal as a family. You’re going to be faced with hard choices and [different things] to balance, and in that environment, sometimes it’s difficult to maintain your priorities. But your priority always should remain, in my opinion, your family. Your family comes first; No. 1. It’s OK for your job and your career to be second ... but never confuse that order. Family first. In the long run, it is not your job that will define you, but it’s how you conduct your life and the choices that you make that will.”
Nike Brand president
Utah State University
|Photo: UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY
“I can’t believe how incredibly fortunate I’ve been. I have stayed at the same company for 34 years. Sometimes I have to stop and ask myself why. The original plan was to stay a maximum of five years. I had options along the way, but I realized there were three questions I had to be able to answer yes to every time I considered another opportunity, whether it was inside or outside of Nike. First: Was I confident and prepared to be a success in the new role? Because success breeds opportunity. Second: Was it an opportunity that allowed me to continue to learn new things? Because you don’t know what you don’t know. And finally: Was it something I really had a passion for? Because boredom will never allow you to do your best. Beyond that, I didn’t have a plan. I felt that if I could answer those three questions in a positive way, then I took the role. I considered changing companies along the way, but in the end, Nike always allowed me to answer those questions over the span of my career.”
St. Norbert College
|Photo: ST. NORBERT COLLEGE
“The [Milwaukee] Braves moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season, leaving many heartbroken fans in Milwaukee behind. I shared the sadness that swept our community. But I have never been one to sit back and wallow instead of searching for a solution, and the disappointment I once felt gave way to a sense of determination. While I was only 30 and the odds were tremendously stacked against us, I decided to do what I could to bring a big league club back to my hometown. …
“There were many disappointments along the way, but there was never defeat. All of our efforts became worthwhile on the night of March 31, 1970, when the American League’s Milwaukee Brewers were born. When baseball returned to Milwaukee, the people of Wisconsin had another reason to smile together. As the heir to the Braves, the Brewers re-established an important part of the Milwaukee and Wisconsin experience because of the shared sense of community that our team inspired. Through perseverance, vision, persistence and patience, we had restored the common bond that had been missing for four years.
“One of my most prized mementos that crystallized this long effort came from a man who made his name right here: the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. He sent the first telegram I received on April 1, 1970, that to this day is framed and hanging in my office — which said, ‘Congratulations on finally obtaining the team after so many years. I wish you great success.’ With this example in mind, I urge each of you to chase your dreams.”
Olympic track medalist (2004, 2008, 2012 Games)
University of Texas
|Photo: MARSHA MILLER
“[I] headed into the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as the hands-down favorite for gold. It was only right: I was No. 1 ranked for three consecutive seasons. I had only lost four races in four years. This was my time. ...
“I started out strong and came off the final bend with a huge lead. I could see the finish line. Victory was surely mine. Then, in a flash, I remember looking down at the Olympic rings, and everything starting to fall apart. I felt a cramp in my hamstring, and the finish line seemed to move further and further away. This wasn’t my dream; this was a nightmare. I remember feeling powerless as it felt like everyone rushed past me before the end of the race. I finished third. The one race I wanted to win all my life was the only race I’d lose for the season. I was devastated. ...
“I couldn’t understand then why it happened, but from this vantage point, I’m so grateful it did. You see, in order to achieve greatness, you will experience failure. It’s the bitter ingredient in the recipe for success. Without trying and failing, you never really get the opportunity to stand in the face of your disappointment, your insecurities, your arrogance, your pride, and say ‘I’m stronger.’ When things are great, we rarely stop and take a moment to truly evaluate what we’re learning or how we’re growing. Failure then becomes imperative to true prosperity. … Failing is temporary. It’s giving up that’s permanent.”
ESPN college football and basketball host / broadcaster
“I’ve said many times, I’ve never ‘gone to work’ a day in my life. So I would like to encourage all of you, as you start this journey, I hope that you elect to never just ‘go to work.’ I didn’t say — mom and dad, before you absolutely panic up there — never get a job. I didn’t say don’t work hard at that job. I didn’t say don’t be passionate about your career. I said never elect to just ‘go to work.’ …
“Be responsible for your own self-determination. You have to step out. You have to find a way to sing your song, because rest assured, no matter what path or what tune you pursue, somebody is going to be waiting in the wings, either on purpose or just by happenstance, trying to knock you off key.”
New England Patriots owner
|Photo: SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY
College of Arts and Sciences
“I was flattered to receive an invitation a few months ago to give this address, and I was originally prepared to deliver a message to the graduates about dreaming big. But the realities of [April’s] event at the Boston Marathon on a day that celebrated Massachusetts as Patriots’ Day changed that. In the hours, days and weeks following the blast, Boston prevailed. We witnessed heroism and teamwork, and as a result, we felt great pride and patriotism. Those evil acts united us. We became one Boston. We became ‘Boston strong.’ And each of you were part of that. …
“But there’s a lesson here. You don’t have to wait for a tragedy to occur to rush to help those in need. The concept of ‘first responder’ doesn’t have to be at a time of such dire consequences as we witnessed here [in April]. Imagine if everyone applied the concept of being a first responder, helping others in need every day in your life? Help a complete stranger. Hold doors open for others. Show others respect. Make a small donation to support a worthy cause. Perform random acts of kindness. I’ll just tell you when I go into Dunkin’ Donuts most mornings, I get a great thrill out of buying the people behind me coffee or doughnuts or whatever they want. It makes me feel better, and I’ll tell you if you do things like that, it’ll make you feel better. It’ll make the people around you feel better, and our whole community will become stronger.”
Cal Ripken Jr.
Baseball hall of famer
University of Maryland
|Photo: MIKE MORGAN / UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND
“It hit me; in fact, quite literally. I got hit with a 94-mph pitch in the side of my helmet in Baltimore. I was struggling mightily in the early part of my rookie season, and I was miserable. I was blaming others and stalled by my attitude. That shot to the head knocked some sense into me. Earlier in the week, my veteran teammate and All-Star Ken Singleton had pulled me aside and showed me a tape of me throwing a helmet and just said, ‘We don’t do that here. That’s not what it’s all about. That’s the wrong attitude.’ So after getting beaned and while laying on the X-ray table, I started to think more about what Ken had said. What’s this secret that everyone seems to know but me? Well, the conclusion I came to was that it wasn’t all about me, and the world certainly was not my enemy. I realized that I was affected with a negative attitude. That ball striking me helped flip the switch, and I made a choice to have a positive attitude. My talent and skill had supported me to that point. My change in attitude helped me achieve being named Rookie of the Year that year and MVP the next. And what a difference it made in my career. I was propelled forward by my positive attitude. As I continued playing the game I loved, I stopped blaming; I was accountable. I became aware. I felt more accomplished. I was more in control.”
San Francisco Giants president and CEO
San Francisco State University
|Photo: SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
“Listen carefully to that voice inside you. Believe in it. The choice of how you spend your life is yours; not your parents’, not your professor’s, not your best friend’s. Find what you love and go all in. And when you get shot down, figure another way. Be relentless — and that’s lesson No. 2: perseverance. Some of you today have balanced full-time jobs with a full load of classes. Some of you have sent your children off to school in the morning before arriving on campus, and you helped them with their homework at night before diving into your own. Every graduate here today, every one of you, had to push through rough patches to make it to this day, and so many people don’t make it to the end. But you did. So all of you, you already know perseverance. It will keep you going when people say you’re dreaming too big. It will keep you going when you fail.
“In baseball, the best batters fail two out of three times. You’ll fail, too, because failure is not an aberration. It’s the price of success. It is how you learn. I’ve been with the Giants now for over 20 years. We have failed plenty and learned plenty. There have been heart-wrenching defeats, near financial collapse after a leaguewide players’ strike, empty seats as we worked to win back fans. And then on the other side, we’ve had dramatic victories, a home run record, a perfect game and now 191 consecutive sellouts. But nothing, nothing is more exhilarating and satisfying in my career at the Giants than being part of the Giants’ first World Series championship in San Francisco in 2010.”